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Love actually, not virtually: finding romance in unlikely places isn't lost in the ether

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Nicole Buergers and Brenden Macaluso are both 32. They struck up a conversation about hipster eyewear over free beer and cheap eats at a Houston hangout one Sunday afternoon and Macaluso recalls the evening ending this way:

Nicole: "So how do we do this?"

Brenden: "You give me your number, I call you and we go out and have fun."

Yep, random love is alive and well in Houston. In this age of online dating, virtual flirting and location-based hookup by app, these two are firm believers in three-dimensional serendipity nearly a year after their first encounter.

Even better, Macaluso realized before pursuing Buergers further that the two attended the same large suburban high school and had been in a couple of English classes together.

"Like many young people in the 21st century I had taken a stab at Internet dating," said Macaluso, an industrial designer who also restores vintage motorcycles. "For me this was a complete failure. My experiences had always resulted in awkward dates."

That, he said, left a simple formula for finding love: meeting in person, and "when you least expect it, not when you're trying to."

Mechanized dating remains a huge business worth a billion or more worldwide, but several others like Macaluso in living-online generations said they, too, found their happiness the old-fashioned way. In other facets of life they remain avid users of digital tools and social networks, which is where the AP caught up with them, including 28-year-old Patrick Murphy in Medway, Mass., southwest of Boston.

Murphy, the general manager of a junk removal business, found a girlfriend online and the two eventually moved in together. The relationship soured about three years later and he returned from a weekend away to find she had disappeared all his stuff.

With little money, no furniture and a whopping case of the blues, Murphy's co-workers alerted him to a tags-on leather couch somebody didn't want. After he picked it up, word came through the office that a local teen club was in search of a sofa, so he decided to donate it instead.

Enter Caroline Cooke, the club worker who took possession of said couch. "I wasn't looking for love," said Murphy of their unlikely meeting in late 2008. "I was just looking to make it through each day. We've been together ever since."

Has virtual life and the promise of dating algorithms left some singles closed off to such on-the-ground happenstance? "The way we met, we tell everyone and they think it's crazy," Murphy offers.

Never married, an internet marketer and without a boyfriend for years, Buergers considered herself a prime candidate for online dating before she bumped into Macaluso.

"I just felt really uneasy about the online dating thing," she said. "It's not that it has a stigma for me or anything, but just personally, I couldn't put myself out there like that."

Others lent assurances that shopping carts still collide, friends of friends still meet at weddings and passengers on planes still strike up conversations that land them happiness.

For Barbara Ward, 55, it was the law. She married her real estate attorney in Portland, Maine, after consulting him in 2004 about a tricky condo development at an historic inn she had purchased.

"Neither Ron or I had been looking for love, or even a date," she said. "We never did finish those documents."

As a dating concierge, Thomas Edwards dreams of love 24/7, but he never thought he'd find it for himself with a fellow expert in the industry, especially one who works primarily online while he works mostly offline.

Edwards, 27, is The Professional Wingman, a real-life "Hitch" who charges up to $20,000 for dating makeovers. He offers everything from confidence-boosting trips to bars for instruction on how to talk to women to lifestyle overhauls, wardrobe and all.

"But I'd never done online dating," he said.

Laurie Davis, 31, is an online dating hound, with a new book out from Simon & Schuster, "Love (at) First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating." She put up her first profile at 19 and helps people with, among other things, taking just the right photo and hitting just the right tone in their dating bios.

The two fell for each other after she spotted his Twitter avatar during a cruise of the hashtag "dating" and struck up a conversation in 140 characters.

Turns out they grew up 20 minutes apart in the Boston area. The two plan to marry next year.

"Everything really just escalated," Davis said. "Needless to say I never needed to help him with his profile."

___

On the 'Net:

http://www.theprofessionalwingman.com/

http://www.eflirtexpert.com/

___

Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http:twitter.com/litalie

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